When they are alone, walking out, the major tells Boo Mason what an inspiration he had been to him Up There. "I remembered how you hated to lose. And I hate to lose. Maybe it was one of the things that helped me for 6½ years. Not wanting to let them beat me. Not wanting to lose."
"I knew if anybody could get through it, you could," Boo Mason says. "Did they—how was the treatment?"
"Fair, Boo. Fair.... No. It was brutal."
Lying on a rattan mat in his cell at the Hanoi Hilton he was sure he was dying. His right leg, infected by the shrapnel wounds, was now badly swollen and turning black; it looked like an elephant's leg. The flimsy cast that had been put on his broken arm was already disintegrating and he could feel the bones moving underneath. Finally, he told the prisoner in the next cell of his despair.
"Neal, there's only one thing to do," the man said. "That's to pray. A lot."
Opal Two prayed. He prayed constantly. He would say later that it was "the turning point." The next day he was moved to another prison south of Hanoi, and a week later, without anesthetic, a Vietnamese doctor cut into his leg. He was held down, a sheet over his head, while two incisions were made and latex strips inserted and left hanging to allow the infection to drain.
In November his arm was operated on for the first time. A piece of bone was taken from his hip and grafted into the arm as a pin. His cast was set at an angle up from his body, with his forearm across his forehead. Weak from the operation and lack of food, he was on his back for 30 days. His cellmates shared their rations with him. When it got too cold for him to endure, one of them slept with him, sharing the two blankets they had been issued.
After 96 days the cast was taken off. Opal Two was told to exercise the arm, but when he tried to move it he could see it bend. A few days later Opal Two could feel the bones pulling apart "like taffy." Once more the arm hung uselessly at his side. It remained that way for 4½ years.
"Remember, Neal, we're the ones in green," Bennie Ellender says, grinning.
The 1972 Tulane-LSU game flickers and rolls on the screen in the coaches' office.